“You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know. You are the one who’ll decide where you’ll go. Well, go forward, go forward. On to glory!”
Last Sunday I fulfilled a life long dream. I ran the London Marathon.
In the run up to the big day I was avoiding a lot of conversation about it. The odd photograph on Instagram here and there, but no writing. I had so many things that I wanted to blog about but I didn’t. Why? Well, firstly, I was very, very scared about what I was going to be putting my body through. This was my first marathon ever, which was scary enough, but add in my arthritis to the mix and I really did feel like I was dicing with death. People don’t tend to know that they have an undiagnosed heart condition until it’s too late after all. But I also didn’t blog because I am always very aware that just because I can do a marathon with arthritis doesn’t mean this is the norm. I suppose part of me didn’t want to be ‘rubbing it in’ peoples faces.
I feel like this might be the longest blog post I ever publish so get the kettle on and settle down.
In The Beginning
This journey begins in the 90s. Little Rebecca, sports mad. A talented school athlete. A lover of watching the marathon. Little Rebecca knew that one day she was going to run the London Marathon.
I’m sure we all know what happens between then and April 2016. I continued to be sports mad. I would travel the UK and Europe to watch football. I never found a sport I didn’t enjoy. I grew taller. I went to university. I became lazy. I start running. Life becomes very good again. My health improves. I become fit. I lose some much needed weight. My mental health becomes the best it has ever been. My confidence generally is sky high. I fall head over heels in love with running. I run and then one day I can’t walk. I stiffen up. I can’t move. I’m swollen. I’m in pain. Turns out, I have psoriatic arthritis. I sink in to a deep depression of which I can’t see how I will ever get out of it. I can’t even walk from one room to another, let alone run. Life becomes dreadful.
However. I don’t know when I’m beaten.
The Build Up
On the 15th August 2016 I applied for, and was given, the marathon place from Arthritis Research UK. Looking back now with hindsight, what a really really really stupid thing for me to do. This was still 2 weeks before my official diagnosis at hospital, I was medication free and flaring badly. But I clearly had the naïve belief that I would be ok and up and running again one day. I took a charity spot because I knew that I had to run London. There was no other marathon that would do. I didn’t want to enter the ballot and not be successful. I needed to know I would be running. Which was a sensible idea because I haven’t received a ballot spot in the 4 years I’ve applied. Plus, it’s always nice to raise money for charity, and ARUK were a charity who I suddenly and unexpectedly had a very personal connection with.
Come the day of the 2017 marathon I was unable to run and had to defer my place (See here for how I felt that day and also some cracking photos of me in a hat: https://sensibleshoes.blog/2017/04/23/the-london-marathon/ ) I was failing spectacularly on methotrexate. Heavily reliant of diazepam to try and control the pain and spasms I was having in my neck. This was probably the worst month I have ever experienced with arthritis. This would continue until I started sulfasalazine. Which I had such a severe reaction to I was taken off after only 6 days. 3 more months of being in a flare and medication free would follow until October 2017.
Enter cosentyx. The injections worked instantly.
In the November, I would run my first 5k in a very long time around The Kelpies. It would be slow but steady. I would get round the entire course without stopping in 40 minutes. My body felt strong and I had no negative repercussions over the next few weeks. I would boldly declare this the day that the marathon comeback started.
Only it wasn’t. I wouldn’t run again until February. I would have toe surgery in the January that would prevent me from doing any exercise. I tried to keep moving and so walked 1 mile every lunch break. I still felt quite fit. But fit enough for 26.2 miles? HELL NO. I also didn’t do a lot of running because I am inherently a very lazy person and don’t need an excuse to stay home in my pjs and just read. But mid February I did start going out a few times after work. The odd 3km. Maybe a 6km if I was feeling good. Saving a 10km run for a Sunday.
I combined the running with a lot of walking but I felt ok in the days after. No joint pain, no swellings.
But it wasn’t all good. My longest run was only 6 miles. All of my training runs combined only came to 32 miles. This is 100% not advisable in any way.
The last few weeks have been some of the most difficult of my life, physically and mentally.
My decision to run the marathon was one that truthfully, I didn’t really think through. When I was first diagnosed with arthritis, I was so angry that it had robbed me of my ability to run. To do something that I loved doing. It destroyed me. Pre-arthritis, my body was strong enough and I was fit enough to be working towards a sub 4-hour marathon. I knew that my first marathon would have to be London and I knew that it wouldn’t be my last.
But obviously, we all know what happened.
Overnight, I was left devastated by the fact that my body had given up on me.
Overnight I had become disabled.
Even though I could barely walk, I still believed that one day I would run again. That one day I would run the London Marathon.
With the benefit of hindsight, this would be one of the most naïve moments of my entire life.
Over the last four weeks though, I have struggled with the enormity of what I am about to do. I would cry at any given moment, overcome with fear that I wasn’t ready. That my body wouldn’t get around the course. That somewhat morbidly, I wouldn’t survive. I was quite literally sick with fear. I would sit up all night worried about what would happen. On numerous occasions I decided that I simply wouldn’t bother competing. After one particularly arduous 6 mile run, Jack said to me “I feel like you’re not enjoying running any more. Are you?”
And the answer was no. I wasn’t enjoying it. Every short run was fraught with fear that I was making my body worse, and let’s be honest, I probably was. My left knee was causing me so much pain that I didn’t know what to do. But as I kept reminding myself, I needed to do London. For me. I needed to know that I could still do it. That the arthritis that has so ravaged my body and my life would not win.
I needed closure.
And with that, I promised Jack that I would never run again after the marathon. I feel okay with that.
The pressure continued to build. I developed a very good relationship with the team at Arthritis Research UK and we agreed that they could share my story with the local and national press.
First up came the local paper, the Evening Express:
The day after this was published I went to the local radio station North Sound One to be interviewed:
My interview ended up being played on every hourly news bulletin. Work colleagues were asking for autographs. I became very aware that there was a lot of expectation on me to complete the marathon, a lot was riding on me delivering.
Then came The Scottish Sun:
And so the anxiety grew. I had so many sleepless nights. I would cry repeatedly throughout the day. I lost nearly 10lbs in weight because I was constantly being sick through fear. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready. My body couldn’t do a marathon. I was going to drop out, I could feel it. I would never live it down.
The week of the marathon arrived. Then came an even bigger blow. My employers, who prior to this had agreed to match my sponsorship, suddenly declared they wouldn’t be making any kind of contribution. I had been quite relaxed about my fundraising until this point because I knew that I would be matched. Now, with a week to go, I was up a creek without a paddle. This is still an issue that I have a great problem with and I’ve escalated the matter up to senior management and will continue to do so until they keep their promise to me.
Oh. Did I mention that London was about to be in the grip of a heatwave?
Friday 20th April 2018
On the Friday, to London JP and I went. Anxious but I felt surprisingly calm. There was to be no going back now. At the airport I learnt that I would be one of fifteen running because they had arthritis. It kept things in perspective about why I was running. I never thought I would have this opportunity. I was now just 48 hours away from it. I was doing it against the odds.
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The Expo at the Excel center awaited. The DLR rammed full of other people off to collect their race numbers. Silently sizing everyone else up “I’ll beat him” “I bet she’s fast”. I wonder what people thought when they saw me. Were they sizing me up? Slim, looks fit, bet she’s done this before. But nobody knew of course just what’s going on with my body. And I too didn’t know what everyone else was going through. How many others were there overcoming their own hurdles and personal struggles.
The expo I did not enjoy. I felt like a complete fraud. I can’t run a marathon!! These people are actually running it. I just want to complete it. People at the stands trying to get me to sign up to various exotic marathons around the world. PLEASE STOP ASKING ME I CAN’T RUN A MARATHON I DON’T BELONG HERE. Forgetting of course, the whole reason why I was there was because of a marathon. I did however see Paula Radcliffe.
Fun fact about me. I am in love with Paula Radcliffe. I met her in Glasgow in October 2015.
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how fit and toned my body is here. SIGH. I had just run 10k. I was probably quite sweaty and smelly but she was far too polite to say so. I went up to her and I found myself stroking her arm. Not just a light brush. But caressing her arm. I can’t tell you just how unbelievably lovely she is. So it was a lovely surprise to see her in London and to be so close to her again.
The restraining order has clearly been lifted.
What I did enjoy about the expo though was the shirt printing station. I had known for a while that I was going to have an additional message on the back of my shirt and now was my opportunity. This would turn out to be the best £14 I’ve ever spent on running. Even though they didn’t include the apostrophe I so clearly added.
Something that they don’t tell you about marathons though (and if they do they should bloody shout it louder) is that you will be absolutely SICK of pasta. I was eating so much pasta that I got to a stage where I couldn’t chew it anymore. I was shoveling it in my mouth and it was going nowhere. It was pasta puree, like baby food, just falling out of my mouth. I have never been so attractive.
Saturday 21st April 2018
So came Saturday. The day before Sunday. The day before the marathon. Nerves quite high. But also I felt quite content. The weather was lovely so we decided to go for a walk. After a quick pit stop at the National Gallery to see my favourite painting of all time (FYI, Whistlejacket) we went to my happy place to avoid the marathon pressure. Somewhere that holds so many happy memories for me, Going as a child with my parents and my sister to feed the ducks. To hunt for squirrels. To play and laugh and have fun.
We went to St James Park. AKA THE END OF THE MARATHON. I wasn’t escaping the stress, I was willingly walking right in to it.
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More pasta puree was consumed and that nights sleep would be one of the best I had in a while. I didn’t wake numerous times. I fell asleep and I stayed alseep.
6am alarm. 2 slices of toast a mouthful of cereal forced down. Everyone at breakfast all there that early for the same reason. We’re all about to undertake 26.2 miles on the streets of London. And just like that, we’re off towards Brixton tube station.
Before I even know what’s going on I’m in Greenwich. Walking along Greenwich High Road, a road I know well, on my way to the park. Suddenly I remember why I love races. We’re all in this together. There’s a great sense of expectation. The sun is shining. JP walks me all the way up to the entrance of the race pens and I realise, I don’t feel scared. I don’t feel nervous. I am excited. I know I can do this. I know at some point later that day I will have done it.
I met up with a lot of fellow Team A runners and there’s a great sense that we really are a team. I’m not the only one running this with arthritis and that’s reassuring. A quick trip to the toilet for a last minute wee and I’m off to my pen. I put in such a slow estimated finish time I’m in the last pen with the fancy dressers. It’s not even 10am yet but it is absolutely scorching. As I do though, I get talking to everyone around me. We all share that same feeling of the unknown, not knowing what’s ahead of us, but we all know we’re gonna take our time to make sure we get round safely. Chat turns to training. How far did you go? People start to sound worried when they share that their longest run was only 19 miles. 16 miles. I say “I’ll make you laugh, my longest run was 6 miles”. Cue laughter from everyone, a chorus of “yes that does make me feel better”, before they realise. I’m telling the truth. Yet at this particular moment, just minutes away from The Queen pressing the start button, I know I am ready.
ANDDDDD WE’RE OFF.
Only I’m not. And it will take something near to 53 minutes before I cross the start line (I wasn’t joking when I said I was at the back).
“Whatever you do. Don’t set off fast. It’s slightly downhill, it’ll catch you out. Pace yourself”
I’m running. I’m running the London Marathon. Oh and I’m walking. I’m walking the London Marathon. I am here. I am doing this. This doesn’t seem real.
I’m passed by Mr Bump. A full pack of Pink Lady Apples. A man with an inflatable T-Rex suit on. A dalek, complete with sound effects. 3 rhinos.
People passing me gently squeeze my arm. They’ve read the message on my shirt, they tell me I’m inspirational, I’m so brave, that I am amazing.
At mile 3, the shirt did something I never expected it to do. A man ran up to me and told me he too had arthritis. We get chatting (honestly, I can’t stop talking) and he asks if he can run with me. And so, for the next 8 miles, Phil becomes my new best marathon friend. He realises pretty early on that I am very bossy, but he’s too kind to say anything. I try to pass this off as being some kind of motivational runner. But really. I just love the sound of my own voice.
When we passed the Cutty Sark, I knew that I was about to see JP. I see him and off I sprint. We hug, I start to have a few tears. I take a terrible selfie that will never see the light of day, and off I go to the Arthritis Research cheer squad a few yards up. I make a very literal song and dance about this, twirling my way up to them. And off I go again.
And then I see her. Rachel. My Sister. I didn’t expect to see her for another 7 miles. And so begin the waterworks. I literally cannot stop crying (if you zoom in you can see a single solitary tear dripping down my cheek. I assume the others quickly evaporated in the heat.)
But the marathon waits for no cry baby so off I go again. Come on Phil, we got this! The heat increases. By this point I’m pretty sure Mo Farah has finished. A friend of Phils lives at mile 8. He comes out to see us with bottles of frozen water. I’ve never known true love quite like a bottle of frozen water against the back of my neck. At mile 11, I don’t quite know what happens. I am running followed by walking, and I turn around, and Phil has gone. I don’t know where has gone. I feel really very bad but I have to keep on going.
The crowd deserve a very special mention at this point. Along the entire course people of all nationalities, ethnicities, religions, sexuality, walk of life and more were all united by the marathon. When water was scarce on the course (which was alarmingly frequent) people were attaching hose pipes to their kitchen sinks to fill our bottles. Running out with jugs to top us up. People offering us suncream. Ice lollies. Sweets and food. So many people cheering us on by name, having some banter. They were unwavering in their support.
Tower Bridge. That wonderful London icon. This is the point where most people get emotional. Not me. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The thing about Tower Bridge is that it is best admired from another bridge. But hey, I ran it. It was cool.
I cross the half way point. I am now in completely uncharted territory, having never run above 13.1 miles before. But I feel very, very good. I know at about 14 miles to expect JP, Rachel and her boyfriend James, and this keeps me going. Like a mirage on the distance, I see them.
More tears. We all agree I look fantastic. If not slightly sweaty. I mutter the words “I FEEL GREAT” and off I go. I will regret this statement in just 3 miles time.
Mile 17. The right knee starts to hurt. Like, really hurt. I am by this point doing a lot more walking than I am running. People around me are dropping like flies in the heat. Canary Wharf. Now THAT sets off the waterworks. A building I so closely relate to my childhood (I don’t know why either so don’t ask) but running towards that magnificent beast really got me emotional. But still the knee hurts. I have to keep going. 20 miles. The pain gets worse. But I have to keep going. Go forward, go forward, on to glory!
At mile 21, the cheer squad has increased one, by the arrival of Max, who’s birthday it happened to be. Max has been my dearest friend since we met at university almost 10 years ago and I love him to bits. Somehow a sign has appeared! Wow! They made me a sign!! I will learn afterwards that they found this sign discarded on the ground, but as I happen to be Miss Becca, they took the sign as a sign they were meant to find it. More tears. I have lost so much fluid through both sweat and tears.
I don’t know how I do it, but I find myself at 24 miles. Time has gone alarmingly quickly. And then it happens. The knee. It twists. I want to cry out. I want to be sick from pain. But I can’t. I am within touching distance of the finish now, I have to keep moving. It all becomes a blur from here on. I spend about a mile walking with a fellow Team A runner Hazel who fills me with the encouragement I need to keep hobbling.
Buckingham Palace. The cheer squad for the final time. A tap on the shoulder from a fellow runner. “I have arthritis too, I just want to say I love your shirt.” We get talking. 400 meters to go. I tell her I have to run this part. I have to run across that line. I do.
I cross that line.
I completed the marathon.
The girl I just met also crosses the line. She cries. I cry. I ask if I can hug her and she says yes. We realise at this moment we ‘know’ each other through a facebook group for young people with arthritis ‘Arthurs Place’. Frederica. Rheumatoid arthritis warrior. We had connected for the first time the day before, and by the powers of the universe, we ended up crossing the line at the exact same time.
And off I hobble to St James’ Park to meet the squad. I can’t support any weight on my right leg now. It is a buckling mess. I realise at this point that my complete lack of distance training was the best thing I could have done. Or not done as the case may be. If I’d have done 20 miles in training, there’s a high chance my knee would have gone and I wouldn’t have been able to take part. See. Always method to my madness.
The real tears start. The uncontrollable sobbing. I am OVERWHELMED by messages from people. Friends old and new. Strangers. Work colleagues. Long lost loves and worst enemies. There isn’t a single person who at that moment in time I don’t hear from. I am lost for words. I was told I would never run again and I just completed the marathon. I phone my beloved Mum, who hears me cry out the words that I did it. Cool as anything she simply says “Well done, I knew you would do it”, and she did. I can never admit to her that she was right, but she was.
I can’t stand up. I can’t walk. I have to be supported pretty heavily with a person either side of me. But it’s ok. I can take this pain. This is a pain I never thought I would experience. A pain that tells me I achieved the unachievable.
It occurs to me that I haven’t had a wee in over 7 hours (we’re all friends here). This is probably the longest time in my entire life I have gone without. I am affectionately known as wee-wee head, due to my drinking 4 liters (minimum) of water every day. It will take me about 6 days to properly re-hydrate myself again. It will take me a week to truly appreciate what I have achieved.
And just like that. It’s done.
I promised the world that I would never run another marathon.
I instantly take it back.
I want to do it all over again. Not at that very moment admittedly. But next year. Every year my body will allow me. I’m going to run it again.
Best marathon friend forever Phil reaches out to me on facebook. I am overjoyed. We both survived the greatest test we’d ever faced and made a friend in the process.
The next few days pass in a haze. My knee is very bad, and even now, is still excruciating, but I have that same naive belief it will get better. I returned to work to be met with high praise and admiration, even by those who doubted I would do it beforehand. The sponsorship money rolls in. The support makes me emotional again.
Whilst I am no longer an official Team A member, my work with Arthritis Research UK is hopefully not finished. Ive been trying to convince them to put me in TV advert so that the world can see my beautiful face. I’m not sure if they think I’m joking…..
If you have made it this far, I salute you.
In a few days time I am back in hospital for toe surgery. No running for a few months. The next challenge is The Great North Run in September. Given how good I am at just winging it, I probably won’t start training until the day before.
I still don’t think what I have achieved has fully hit me yet. I don’t know when the reality will hit me. It’s coming in drips, but the enormity of it is still to come.
My marathon of 26.2 miles might not be everyone’s marathon. Just walking 500 meters will feel like the same achievement for other people. But two years ago, and even a year ago, I lost that belief that I could do this. I never thought I would do it. I gave up. In my lowest moments I never saw this day happening. And whilst I’m not saying that everyone has a marathon in them, I do know that arthritis doesn’t have to rob you of everything. I want to tell you all that there will be better days. That those hopes and dreams you feel have been taken from you are still there to be yours. Never, ever stop believing like I did.
Of all the photos that got taken through the day, this one is possibly my favourite. Sure we might be looking in different directions, but I can feel the love between us. I honestly wouldn’t share wearing a medal with anybody else.
If you have a sibling who you don’t look particularly similar to, take some comfort from the fact that despite having no resemblance to the other, Rachel and I are in fact 100% full sisters. She, tall and willowy with curves in all the right places, a delicate bone structure and a figure to die for. Me, short, stumpy, big round face, body of a pre-pubescent boy, the spitting image of our Chinese Grandad when he was 60 years old.
But she is my squishy. My number one supporter. She will be well chuffed that I’ve written about her.
Thanks Squish. I love you.